My Last Christmas

As some of you may know, this holiday season has been a real milestone for me because this is the tenth anniversary of “My Last Christmas,” as in my final Christmas on earth.  Ten years ago, the week before Thanksgiving, on the day before my 45th birthday, I was told that I would not likely live to see another Christmas because I had terminal kidney cancer.  I spent the entire holiday season – and beyond – in doctors’ offices and hospitals, reading medical journals, finding hope, then losing hope after having tests that always seemed to bring worse and worse news.

Now, at this point, let me say, I can hear you thinking.  And what I hear is:  “Well, this is certainly uplifting.  What’s THIS got to do with the Happy LIFE?”  Well, please bear with me just a bit longer because here’s what I hope:  that thinking about what kind of Christmas you’d have if you knew it was going to be your last one, might help make this the best Christmas of your life.

Here are the top ten things I learned from my “last” Christmas:

1)   When you don’t know what else to do, go for a walk.  Or, take a bath.  Depending on how cold it is outside.  And don’t confuse the two because good walking shoes are not waterproof – and the neighbors won’t appreciate seeing you naked

2)   It’s OK to pray for healing but you’d better pray for strength and acceptance, too.  And the simplest act – from cleaning the kitchen to walking around the block – can become a prayer of gratitude for each moment that you have

3)   No matter how hard it is to wait for the right time, and no matter how far away they are, deliver bad news to the people who love you in person

4)   The people you’ve always laughed with before, may – or may not – be good at finding the humor in dying.  And the people you least expect may end up being the most comfort

5)   As hard as it is, dying is a lot harder on your family than it is on you – and they will become a whole lot closer to one another over the prospect of losing you

6)   A final family portrait is a good idea – and giving each other rabbit ears in a photo booth is the best portrait of all

7)   When it comes to spending your time, “who” is far more important than “how”

8)   Happiness really is a choice – and we can make a different choice every second of every day

9)   Christmas is about what’s in your heart, not what’s under the tree

And the biggest thing I learned from being told – ten Christmases ago – that I’d never live to see another Christmas:

10)  Don’t believe every freaking thing you hear.

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Note:  This post is adapted, just a little bit, from the remarks I was asked to give as “Holiday Sunshine” at a local Kiwanis Club (of which I am honored to be a member).  This is something I’ve been thinking about since I realized, around the time of my birthday this year, that it was the tenth anniversary of my “Last” Christmas.  Since this is also the year of “The Happy LIFE” project, it occurred to me that the Happy LIFE isn’t always sunshine and lollipops, either – so this is what came out when I sat down to write my Holiday Sunshine remarks.  And, in the interest of full disclosure and painting the fuller picture of the things I learned during that time, I’ll add this:  according to our daughter, one of the things I learned is how NOT to be such a [jackass] about putting up a Christmas tree.   I’m not fully cured of that one yet, though. 

The Saboteur

I don’t think having voices in your head is the exclusive domain of those with dissociative identity disorder.  And neither do I.

Heh.  In all seriousness, I don’t think I’m alone in having what sometimes seems like a host of voices giving non-stop internal commentary in my head.  At least one of those voices is the “Saboteur.”   You know the one.  Whenever you face a new challenge or are considering change, it’s the voice saying, “You can’t do that.  You’re gonna bung that up royally.  You’re not special enough to make a difference.  You’re not good at that.”

It’s critically (no pun intended) important to recognize that the saboteur isn’t really trying to keep you from excelling; it’s trying to protect you.  It’s just not very sophisticated and the easiest way to keep you from experiencing pain is to avoid any sort of change, to maintain the status quo.  The Saboteur doesn’t understand that change means growth, new opportunities and the chance to be even more successful.  And, in order to turn down the volume and the repetition of the Saboteur, we have to acknowledge it.

It’s kind of like the two-year-old in the grocery store who sees something he wants and keeps saying, over and over again, “I want that.  I want that. I want that” until his mom says, “Hey.  I hear you.  You want that,” and then goes on to say yes or no.  Until the child (or the Saboteur) is acknowledged, it just keeps on repeating its mantra.  And, with consistent acknowledgement of his stated desires followed by clear communication about what is or isn’t going to happen to meet those desires, the child (and the Saboteur) learn to accept the decision of the controlling entity.

The second thing that’s important understand about the Saboteur is that it’s OK to dissociate from it, in a sense using the same adaptive strategy that those with dissociative identity disorder have employed to survive extreme abuse – splitting the main personality into separate, discrete others as a way to escape what they cannot endure.  Basically, this strategy recognizes that mental disorders are just extreme versions of normal, everyday adaptive processes.  In this case, we’re turning the tables a bit to consider what those of us within the “normal” range can learn from those at the extremes. 

So, the simplest way to begin to dissociate from the Saboteur is to name it, to actually personify it.  What does it look like?  How does it dress?  When does it most like to call attention to itself?  What are its favorite lines?  Once you know who you’re dealing with, it becomes much easier to acknowledge him or her and say, “Yes, I hear you.  I understand what you’re saying and I know this new thing is scary.  I appreciate that you want me to be safe and you’ll just have to trust me to do the right thing.”  It may feel silly at first but you may just find that your Saboteur has been getting far more of your attention that it deserves.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, “Brutilda” and I need to have a little chat about the rest of our day.